During the middle of last week I found myself in a Twitter discussion about the word failure. When speaking about the development and evolution of the use of tablet devices by teachers in his school one of my Twitter contacts commented that he thought that teachers should get hands on devices and fail first. You can follow the thread of that discussion to see how the conversation developed but the nub of my argument was that the word failure is imbued with negative connotations and is a term that can be oppressive, constricting and an enemy to creative thought and action. It belongs to a culture of externally imposed values and expectations, a culture that I believe is one that we as learners are socialised into as we engage with and progress through the formal world of schooling.
Tbe main factor that underpins this belief is based on the observations that I have made over the years when watching children learn - independent of adult intervention - when playing computer games. As the failure discussion ensued on Twitter last week I couldn't help thinking of the world that my two daughters had been making in Minecraft on their Xbox360 that evening. Now, my girls are 9 and 10 and I have never really shown them how to play any of the computer games that they've had over the years and from Nintendogs, to Lord of the Rings, to Little Big Planet they have worked things out for themselves with no intervention from the more skilled and knowledgeable (I think) adult in the house! The same is true of Minecraft and the world they had created with its Redstone roller-coaster, the creeper traps and the flushing toilets in every room of their glass and gold Minecraft palace were testament to that. I have left them to it very much over the past months of Minecraft mania in my house...
How have they managed to learn so much? Where did they learn all this stuff?! They are learning from the support materials built in to games, from their peers and most definitley from YouTube -that's where. I have seen my girls collaborate and work as a team with one of them watching Minecraft Tutorials and giving the instructions to the other who is in world. Their friends have been round and YouTube is on. They learn in this flattened world of collegiate creativity and never think of failure, never! This is a joyous experience and one that appears to me to show the learner in its most beautiful form: free, open, responsive, conversational, successful and confident.
A couple of years ago I gave a talk at the E-Assessment Conference at Dundee University (go to 12:15 for killer Guitar Hero solo) and the themes of intrinsic motivation, peer support, flattened hierarchies and built in support mechansims in games were explored then. I featured some videos I had made of my neighbour's son Jack who was rather handy at playing FIFA. He regularly thumped his dad and me at the game and so I asked him what he had done to get so good at it. It turned out that it was not just about practise but that he was also using the self-assessment tools that are built in to the game to identify what he was good at it but more importantly what he needed to improve on and then once this was identified he used the tools to self-improve. He was in control of his own learning - no requirement for dad to teach him.
Here is the first of two videos with Jack. What you'll see in this video is a example of how young learners/players are able to use the assessment and reporting mechanism within games to help identify and then address their development needs.
Accompanying this first video is this one focusing on 'Progress and Achievement. Here we see a learner who is taking charge of his own progress by using the tools within a game environment -independent of the intervention of a qualified adult- to identify his development needs and to plot a path will that enable him to have the best chance of success.
So where does failure fit, if it all, in the world of learning that young people situate themselves in? Is it a word that they use? Is failure a concept that they fear in the world of the computer game? My experience makes me question whether any of these questions can be answered with a yes...
Is it possibly the case that the concept of failure is one that has been socialised in to our young people by the formal settings that they are obliged to play a part in? By the systems they find themselves attached to and by the values of this system that are externally imposed by the qualified adults who know how to teach. By systems that require YouTube to be blocked...
Maybe Ivan Illich had a point in Deschooling Society when he argued concepts such as fear of failure helped create the conditions for an institutionalised value system to take hold and allow learnes to lose what they appear to possess naturally?
“Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting. Most people learn best by being "with it," yet school makes them identify their personal, cognitive growth with elaborate planning and manipulation.”
Maybe we as educators have lessons to learn from the way 'with it' young people learn so effectively in the meaningful, culturally relevant and hugely challenging worlds that computer games can offer. Maybe we need to take a step back from the established norm of thinking that learners need taught. Maybe, just maybe we can learn from them...they might even introduce some us to YouTube.